Archive for June, 2021

The Aries Project

F9: The Fast Saga

Director: Justin Lin

Cast: Vin Diesel, Charlize Theron, John Cena, Helen Mirren, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Lucas Black, Tyrese Gibson, Chris Bridges, Finn Cole, Kurt Russell, Nathalie Emmanuel, Sung Kang, Anna Sawai, Thue Ersted Rasmussen, Shea Whigham, Michael Rooker, Vinnie Bennett  

Thank you to United International Pictures for the Media Preview at Suncoast Cinemas, Durban of F9: The Fast Saga held on Wednesday 23rd June 2021

Taiwanese-American director Justin Lin who helmed the sequel to the original Fast and the Furious film, called Tokyo Drift returns to direct the ninth instalment of the Fast and the Furious franchise, F9: The Fast Saga, which is an action film infused with speedway nostalgia.

F9: The Fast Saga focuses on Dominic Toretto’s childhood and the death of his father and the fractured relationship with his younger brother Jakob. The younger version of Jakob is played by rising star Finn Cole who appeared in the TV series Animal Kingdom and Peaky Blinders. Dominic’s younger version is played by Vinnie Bennett.

Back in the present, Dominic Toretto confronts his younger brother Jakob played by wrestler turned actor John Cena as they fight it out within a ring of international espionage.

Jakob has fallen under the spell of a Georgian dictator’s son, Otto wonderfully played by Danish star Thue Ersted Rasmussen. Toretto assembles the old crew back including the gang from Tokyo drift Han played by Sung Kang and Sean played by Lucas Black along with Roman and Tej to provide some laughs played respectively by Tyrese Gibson and Chris Bridges.

The girls are well represented in the gang with Letty, Mia, Ramsey and Elle played respectively by Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Nathalie Emmanuel and Anna Sawai. There is also the arch villain: the hacker Cypher played by gorgeous South African born Oscar winner Charlize Theron (Monster).

The story swiftly whisks audiences around the world from Tokyo to Tbilisi, from Edinburgh to the Caspian Sea. The stunts in F9: The Fast Saga are amazing, drawing a lot of inspiration from such 007 films as The Man with the Golden Gun and the latest Christopher Nolan film Tenet, although not quite with the some elegant flourish.

Suspend your disbelief and enjoy the escapism of this action packed full throttle adventure with a stellar cast including some cameo appearances again by Kurt Russell as Mr Nobody and Oscar winner Helen Mirren (The Queen) as Queenie.

Family is at the centre of F9: The Fast Saga as the Toretto brothers battle it out only to realize that they are pawns being used in a more ambitious plan to find a powerful encryption device called The Aries Project which if unleashed on the world’s orbiting satellites, would wreck digital havoc globally.

If viewers are a fan of the Fast and Furious franchise, then go and purchase a ticket in a cinema and watch it on the Big Screen now. It’s amazing but strictly for fans of the eight previous films. Thankfully I have been a fan since the first film was released in 2001.

F9: The Fast Saga is an ideal popcorn film, filled with action, laughter and off the wall stunts, with a story that treats its characters with respect while paying homage to the drag racing franchise. This film gets a film rating of 7.5 out of 10. Go and see it and enjoy.

Dominican Dreams

In The Heights

Director: Jon M. Chu

Cast: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Jimmy Smits, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Jimmy Smits, Gregory Dias IV, Daphine Rubin-Vega, Dascha Polanca, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Olga Merediz, Marc Anthony

Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu takes on the ambitious project of adapting a Broadway musical In the Heights into a film adaptation and unfortunately the finished product while dazzling and funky has limited appeal and should have been edited considerably.

In the Heights was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda who has a small cameo role as a cool drink seller and based upon the novel by Quiara Alegria Hudes, is set exclusively in the mainly Puerto Rican and Dominican neighbourhood of Washington Heights in Spanish Harlem, New York.

Last seen in a supporting role in the Oscar winning A Star is Born opposite Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, Anthony Ramos expertly takes on the main role of Usnavi as a young thirty something Bodega owner who runs a mom and pop store in the heights with the help of his naughty but sharp cousin Sonny wonderfully played by Gregory Dias IV. It’s refreshing to see the talented Anthony Ramos headlining a film.

Audiences should watch out for a cameo by Jennifer Lopez’s ex-husband Marc Anthony as Sonny’s drug fuelled deadbeat father.

Usnavi starts off the film by telling a story to his young children and their friends about the community of Washington Heights and soon the screen explodes into a dazzling dance sequence of exuberant characters and a community which is proud of its Latino roots even if their economic advancement is often stymied by the affluent New York establishment.

With the exception of Sonny and Usnavi’s Cuban grandmother Abuella Claudia played by the brilliant Olga Merediz, the rest of the characters are portrayed with flippant glamour and without much depth including the love interest between Benny played by Corey Hawkins (Kong: Skull Island, BlackKKlansman) and Nina Rosario played by Leslie Grace.

Even well-known actor Jimmy Smits (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) as Nina’s father Kevin Rosario who is desperate to uplift himself out of the Latino community he is born into, does not get enough screen time or suitable characterization. The conflict between Nina and her father is deepened by her terrible experience at Stanford, an Ivy League University in California.  

The dance numbers in In the Heights are uneven, some of them are excellent especially the sequence with Claudia on a subway train channelling her Cuban immigrant roots while others are terrible including the rap number in the communal swimming pool.

As the story unfolds, the film does not find its feet until the second half when New York is plunged into a three day blackout during a summer heatwave. When the blackout occurs, the real depth of In the Heights ironically shines through.

In the Heights is an enjoyable musical about a section of the Latino community which seldom gets a spotlight shone on them. Despite some good performances, In the Heights at 2 hours and 23 minutes could have been drastically edited.

If viewers love fun musicals then watch In the Heights which gets a film rating 7 out of 10, but this area specific musical has limited appeal.

Have a AAA Day

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard

Director: Patrick Hughes

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Salma Hayek, Samuel L. Jackson, Antonio Banderas, Frank Grillo, Morgan Freeman, Richard E. Grant, Tom Hopper, Caroline Goodall, Rebecca Front

It’s always good to get the same director and writer back for the sequel. In this case director Patrick Hughes reunites with screenwriter Tom O’Connor for the even crazier sequel to 2017’s The Hitman’s Bodyguard with 2021’s The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard reuniting the cast of the original: Ryan Reynolds, Salma Hayek and Samuel L. Jackson who star in what is best described as a globetrotting action movie on speed.

If viewers need pure and unadulterated escapism, then get to the cinema now and watch The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard with a supporting cast that includes Oscar winner Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby) as Reynold’s character Michael Bryce’s mentor Senior and Oscar nominee Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory) as the evil Greek Villain Aristotle Papadopoulos.

This crazy foul-mouthed action films starts off with Michael Bryce having therapy for his trauma after realizing that he is a failed bodyguard and then soon Bryce is reunited with Sonia Kincaid, played with a mad cap brilliance by Salma Hayek on the Italian resort island of Capri. Sonia is desperate to find her estranged hitman husband the equally foul-mouthed and violent Darius Kincade played by Samuel L. Jackson who had no trouble reprising this role.

The violence and mayhem inducing trio are soon recruited by an Interpol agent Bobby O’Neil wonderfully played by the macho Italian-American actor Frank Grillo (The Grey, Captain America and the Winter Soldier) to stop psycho Greek shipping tycoon Papadopoulos played with a lavish sophistication by Banderas who is intent on destroying Europe’s complex digital infrastructure, causing the EU economy to collapse.

The action in this film is completely over the top, punctuated by some really cool plot points such as the continually battered Michael Bryce sending voice notes to his future self, wishing him a AAA day.

As the outlandish story jet sets around Italy from Portofino to Florence to Rome, the action sequences are crazy and unoriginal, even borrowing an exact series of action scenes from The Spy who Loved Me.

Besides the bad language and often incoherent script, the only other highlight are the brief scenes that Hayek and Banderas share together reigniting their blazing screen presence first developed in their 1995 film Desperado directed by Mexican director Robert Rodriguez. Then of course there is the ultra-funny Ryan Reynolds who is hilarious as the bruised Michael Bryce who appears to survive every assassination attempt under the Tuscan sun.

Catch this crazy spy spoof The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard only in cinemas now which gets a film rating of 6.5 out of 10. This is classic Millennium studio content which sells box office tickets and attracts the big stars to their action adventure films.

Living with Memories

Ella Blumenthal: I am Here

Director: Jordy Sank

This is a Feature Length Documentary and is available online at the Encounters: South African International Documentary Film Festival from Thursday 10th June until Sunday 20th June 2021 – https://www.encounters.co.za/ #Virtuallyeverywhere – https://www.encounters.co.za/film/i-am-here/ and at select physical venues in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

After his South African Film and Television Award (SAFTA) nomination for best short documentary The Locket in 2017, SA documentary film director Jordy Sank tackles a fascinating subject, the horrific memories of a still living holocaust survivor Ella Blumenthal in his directorial debut feature length documentary Ella Blumenthal: I am Here, which was part of the official selection at the 2021 Miami Jewish Film Festival https://miamijewishfilmfestival.org/ and winning the Audience Award at the 2021 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival https://www.ajff.org/film/i-am-here and now is available to watch online at the Encounters South African Documentary Film Festival.

In a plush apartment in Seapoint in Cape Town, South Africa, Holocaust survivor Ella Blumenthal celebrates her 98th birthday surrounded by her children and grandchildren. During this auspicious occasion, Ella Blumenthal reveals the secret of her horrific past as a Holocaust survivor.

Born in Warsaw, Poland in 1921, Ella Blumenthal was 18 when the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939 igniting World War II. Her and her family were immediately transferred to the Warsaw ghetto until it burnt down. Ella and her niece Roma were then transferred to various concentration camps , while her survival skills were paramount she went onto survive both Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz concentration camp where eventually n 1945, World War II ended and the Holocaust survivors were freed by the Allied troops.

Director Jordy Sank films his subject matter with a compassionate gaze from Ella walking briskly on the Seapoint promenade to her emotional retelling of her horrific experiences of being a prisoner of some of the most notorious concentration camps of World War II at her 98th birthday celebration in 2019, surrounded by friends, children and grandchildren, educating them about the past.

Perceptively and rather cleverly, the flashbacks to the concentration camp horrors are told in a strategic combination of documentary news reel and beautiful animation provided by Greg Bakker, giving the documentary a palatable and heart-warming tone.

Impressively it is the shot of the 98 year old great grandmother swimming in a heated pool with the magnificent skyline of Cape Town in the background as her voice over describes the relief at being rescued by the allied troops and being brought to a camp with well-made up beds and running water, basic necessities which we nowadays take for granted.

Ella Blumenthal: I am Here is a captivating and brilliantly shot documentary about an extraordinary woman, a 98 year old Jewish woman who came to South Africa to make a new life and it offers a message of hope and forgiveness as she recalls how her and her grandson visited Auschwitz in 2004 to make peace with the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. Ella’s message is simple, love everyone and be grateful to be alive.

This is an amazing documentary, skilfully educating a new generation about the survivors of the Holocaust and a formidable woman who has learnt to live life through memories as most of her family from Poland were killed during World War II. With the exception of her niece who now lives in New York, Ella Blumenthal is one of the few survivors of a generation that got brutally obliterated by pure hatred and rampant Anti-Semitism.  

Highly recommended viewing and an important documentary to watch, Ella Blumenthal: I am Here gets a documentary film rating of 8 out of 10. Catch this insightful documentary online at the Encounters Film Festival –

Divas and Dalmatians

Cruella

Director: Craig Gillespie

Cast: Emma Stone Emma Thompson, Mark Strong, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, John McCrea, Emily Beecham, Kayvan Novak, Kirby Howell-Baptiste

Disney’s retelling of 101 Dalmatians paid off in the lavish and expertly crafted live action film Cruella featuring Oscar winner Emma Stone (La La Land) channelling her inner psycho diva as the fashion mad anti-heroine  Estella who becomes the villainous Cruella de Ville.

I, Tonya director Craig Gillespie sets Cruella in the vicious fashion world of the 1970’s as Cruella and her arch rival the narcissist and extremely evil Baroness wonderfully played against type by another Oscar winner Emma Thompson (Howard’s End, Sense and Sensibility) as she draws inspiration from Meryl Streep’s performance in The Devil Wears Prada. In this Avant-Garde and fabulously retro Cruella, the battlefield is the infamous Liberty’s department store in Central London, the playground of 1970’s fashion.

Thompson and Stone are perfectly cast as arch rivals who are determined to rip each other to shreds both figuratively and physically using everything at their disposal from Dalmatians to deception.

With double Oscar winner costume designer Jenny Beavan (A Room with a View, Mad Max: Fury Road) creating the most outrageous costumes for both Cruella and The Baroness, the costumes and makeup are unbelievable and absolutely amazing. The musical score is another winner, adding to the film’s funky and swanky feel.

The male actors in Cruella take a notable backseat to the main plot of a rag to riches Cruella who fights her way literally to the top of the London fashion scene.

There is the exception with Cruella’s fellow thieves Jasper expertly played by Joel Fry (Yesterday) and Horace played by extremely talented character actor Paul Walter Hauser (I, Tonya; BlackKklansman; Richard Jewell). Both Horace and Jasper become Cruella/Estella’s aides and assistants as she effortlessly slips between two opposing personalities, one good and the other evil, almost like a fashionable female version of Joker which garnered an Oscar win for Joaquin Phoenix in 2020.

Naturally evil triumphs over good as Cruella soon realizes that to beat a formidable opponent like the vile Baroness who treats all her staff as lowly minions, you have to become a cold hearted and ruthless Diva. Something which Cruella can relate to.

British actor Mark Strong (1917, Shazam!, Zero Dark Thirty) who plays the obsequious and loyal valet represents the stabilizing force in both Cruella and the Baroness’s lives as he delicately shifts the war between the two powerful female forces in favour of the younger, while revealing a devastating family secret.

Disney hit gold with this lavish version of Cruella thanks to two equally brilliant performances by two exceptional actresses: Emma Stone and Emma Thompson.

Cruella is tantamount to the Joker seizing editorial power over Vanity Fair. This elegant Disney version gets a film rating of 7.5 out of 10 and is insightfully directed by Craig Gillespie.

Film Directors & Festivals
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June 2021
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